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I work for an American company, in the US. We have a large branch in Japan.

What is the etiquette with name usage in written communication, with fellow employees I don't know (don't work with normally)? I'm not Japanese but am familiar with the culture, and it feels extremely weird for me to use their first name.

e.g. for 'Hajime (first name) Saito (surname)' do I use:

  • Saito-san
  • Hajime (sounds really rude)
  • Hajime-san?
  • Hajime Saito-san?
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    Does this answer your question? How do I choose the correct Japanese honorific usage for emails? – DarkCygnus Feb 25 at 15:57
  • Thinking out loud: Will it be more suitable at japanese.stackexchange.com ? – Sourav Ghosh Feb 25 at 15:59
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    What do your colleagues say? – Bernhard Döbler Feb 25 at 16:00
  • @SouravGhosh and King, I think it can be a good fit to Japanese or TWP, depending on how it's phrased. I don't know what's on-topic at japanese, but perhaps this will also be on-topic there (and get more linguistic answers, here OP can get more professional advice) – DarkCygnus Feb 25 at 16:01
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    I'd definitely argue for this being on-topic here, as it's specifically asking about how you address Japanese colleagues in a professional setting - i.e. asking about cultural norms for communicating with Japanese colleagues. – Bilkokuya Feb 25 at 16:17
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From working at a western branch of a Japanese owned multinational company, where a lot of our business is with our Japanese colleagues:

The most common, and safest, way to address the Japanese colleagues is simply Surname-san.

The exception would be those that you work with regularly, where they might signal a different title to use, via their email signature (the same as in the west). If you notice they repeatedly sign off with something like "Sincerely, (Firstname)" - then you are generally safe to just use that.

With that said though, do remember that your Japanese colleagues will be used to working with the west - or at least sympathetic to the fact the west uses different forms of address. If you get it wrong, they will almost always be understanding - it's not an area to stress over too much.

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    I found some material in which Japanese colleagues at my company were referring to each other as firstName-san so I ended up using that. Oops. Will use lastName-san next time instead, thank you – user114979 Feb 25 at 16:38
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    @user114979 firstName-san is also fine, especially if there is a precedent. To begin with, if respect is really required, "san" isn't the term you would use anyway. As suggested, the safest way is Surname-san and the best way is to go with what everyone is using. You can also go with the Western Mr/Ms/Mrs, if you know the gender, and it would go over totally fine – Mars Feb 26 at 2:22
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It depends on the language you are writing in. If you are writing in English, Mr Saito. If you are writing in Japanese, use -san. If you are not sure of the kanji, you should use katakana.

This is from my time working in a Japanese distribution company here in the UK.

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Having worked and lived in Japan myself, I've found that Japanese people who work with Americans are very lenient in terms of understanding American culture. If you address a Japanese person the same way as you would address an American, it's unlikely to cause a lot of unnecessary friction. It might come off as weird to them, but it's unlikely to cause a fuss (plus Japanese people in general are very confrontation-averse so it's not likely to get back to you even if it is a problem).

But the safest way, if you wanted to, would be Surname-san, in this case Saito-san. This form is very impersonal though, so it depends on how personal you want to be; if your work culture encourages informality and camaraderie, you may come across as not a friendly person, so YMMV. If you want to strike a mix of familiarity and respect, First Name-san is also an acceptable form. Not affixing -san is too familiar for your current relationship (although, see above re: Japanese people being lenient towards American cultural norms and being generally confrontation-averse), and Full Name-san is...not a thing.

  • Full Name-san is a thing, but it would probably be Name Full-san... – Mars Feb 26 at 2:19
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    In general, when it is full name it is often formal, and would warrant a -sama, not a -san. – さりげない告白 Feb 26 at 6:51
  • I've never seen -sama or full name-san used between work colleagues. Between an employee and a customer yes, but never between colleagues. To be honest, I would expect that to be taken as a passive-aggressive jab and would very much advise against using it. – Ertai87 Feb 26 at 16:17
  • I've seen it in some bad automated stuff, but yeah, I suppose it would usually be fullName-sama. For full name, you might see it in a large company, communicating across branches--but I have a foreigner name, so it's possible that I was just an exception where the other branch didn't know which was the surname! – Mars Feb 27 at 4:36
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It's great that you want to learn their way of addressing people, but unnecessary. You're a foreigner no one cares much.

In most languages and cultures it's only 'really' insulting if someone from that language or culture doesn't use the correct address. Because then it is probably on purpose, whereas a foreigner doesn't know better, and doesn't matter much in a cultural sense.

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